Under the Sun/Gamins
ANTHROPOLOGY, no doubt, is a great science, but still it is merely an infant, — a monster baby, I confess, but scarcely past the age at which Charles Lamb liked sucking-pigs and chimney-sweeps. Toddles and Poddies, as readers of Dickens will remember, used to go on buccaneering expeditions, but they were only across the kitchen-floor, and often ended in the fireplace. Anthropology, in the same way, makes only short excursions, and these even are not always marked by judgment in direction. At any rate, there can be no doubt that anthropology has not as yet paid any consideration to the great co-ordinate science of “lollipopology” of which one sub-section concerns itself with the phenomena of gamins.
This subject has perhaps been touched upon in ephemeral literature, but it was a mere flirtation, a flippant butterfly kind of settling. The intentions were not matrimonial; there was no talk of taking the house on a lease. And yet the subject of gamin distribution is worthy investigation. Why are there no gamins in India, with their street affronts and trivial triumphs? Pariah dogs are scarcely an equivalent for these unkempt morsels of barbarism, these little Ishmaels of our cities. What is the reason, then, for their absence? Can it be too hot to turn three wheels a penny? Surely not; for dust is a bad conductor of heat, and what gamin is there — pure-minded, a gamin nomine dignus — that would not rather turn thirty somersaults in a dust-bin than three on a pavement? Why, my “compound” alone would tempt to an eternity of tumbling. And yet no Hindoo of my acquaintance has even offered to stand on his head! Can it be that there is no ready means of causing annoyance? What! Is there not that same dust? Would not any gamin, unless lost to all sense of emulation and self-respect, rejoice in kicking up dust if he saw the remotest glimpse of even the chance of molesting anybody? Again, why do not little Hindoos throw stones about? Because there is nothing to throw at? Hah! Put one vulture down in Islington, and mark the instant result. Nothing to throw at? Mehercule! Any member of a large family will remember the tumultuous uprising and stair-shaking exit of the junior olive-twigs if even a wagtail came into the garden. A cat on the lawn was convulsions. Imagine, then, those same impetuous juniors surrounded by blue-jays, bee-eaters, and gray squirrels! And yet the young Hindoo sees an easy mark for any of the stones lying at his feet, and passes on. Perhaps it is something in the shape of the stones? The argument is plausible; for Indian stones, it is true, are of hideous shapes, angular and unprovocative. The fingers do not itch to throw them. But European gamins will throw brick in scraggy and uncompromising sections, rebarbatif and volcanic in appearance, — at, when other targets fail, a curbstone. A London gamin would heave his grandmother, if he could, at a mungoose. Are Hindoos forbidden to throw stones? Perhaps they may be, but imagine forbidding a gamin to throw stones, or forbidding a gamin to do anything! When England sells Gibraltar it will be time to think of that; or when, as Wendell Holmes says, strawberries grow bigger downward through the basket. It is evident, then, that none of these are the right reasons, so it only remains to conclude that Hindoos were not designed in the beginning for gamins. Boys, they say, are the natural enemies of creation, but Young India contradicts this flat. “Boys will be boys” has stood most of us in good stead when brought red-handed before the tribune; yet Young India needs no excusings for mischief. He never does any. He has all the virtues of his elders, and none of their vices, for he positively prefers to behave properly.
Perhaps as a last resource the absence of gamins in India might be accepted as a key to the theory of climates, for we know that Nature never wastes. Nature is pre-eminently economical. What, then, would have been the use of giving Bengal ice and snow, since there are no gamins to throw it about, or to make slides on pavements?
In England the small boy begins to throw stones as soon as he can crawl to one, and continues to do so until he takes to gloves, or is taken up by the police; and there are tolerable reasons why he should thus indulge himself. Take, for instance, the case of a passing train. The boys see the train coming and a lively interest is at once aroused in its approach; the best places on the bridge are scrambled for, and the smaller children, who cannot climb up for themselves, are hoisted on to the parapet and balanced across it on their stomachs to see the train pass. As it comes puffing and steaming up, the interest rises into excitement, and then, as the engine plunges under the bridge, boils over in enthusiasm. How are they to express this emotion in the few seconds at their disposal? They must be very quick, for the carriages are slipping rapidly past one after the other. It is of no use shouting, for the train makes more noise than they, and they, unfortunately, have no handkerchiefs to wave. But the crisis is acute, and something has to be done, and that promptly. There is no time to waste in reflection, or the train will be gone, and the sudden solitude that will follow will be embittered to them by the consciousness of golden opportunities lost for ever. They wave their arms like wild semaphores, scream inarticulately, and dance up and down, but all this is manifestly inadequate. It does not rise to the occasion, and they feel that it does not. The moment of tumult, with the bridge shaking under them, the dense white steam-clouds rushing up at them, and the roar of the train in their ears, demands a higher expression of their homage, a more glorious tribute from their energy. Looking round in despair, they see some stones. To grab them up in handfuls is the work of an instant, and in the next the missiles are on their way. After all, the moment had been almost lost, for the guard’s van was just emerging from under the bridge, as the pebbles came hurtling along after the speeding train; but the youngsters rejoice, and go home gladdened that they did not throw in vain, for the guard, hearing the pattering upon the roof, looked out to see what was the matter and shook his fist at them, and the boys feel that they have done their best to celebrate the event, that their sacrifice has been accepted, and that they have not lived and loved in vain. For it is, undoubtedly, a sacrifice that they offer, — a sacrifice to emotions highly wrought, to an ecstasy of enthusiasm suddenly overwhelming them and as suddenly departing, to the majesty of the train and its tumultuous passage.
Boys do not, it will be noticed, throw stones at passing wheelbarrows or at perambulators, or even at cabs. Neither the one nor the other excites sufficiently. They belong more to their own sphere and their own level in life, are viewed subjectively, and seem too commonplace for extraordinary attentions. The train and the steamboat, however, are abstract ideas, absorbing the human beings they carry into their own gigantic entity, so far removed from the boys’ own lives that they do not fall within the pale of ordinary ethics, and have to be viewed from a higher objective platform. Besides, the driver and guards of the train, being in a hurry, have no time to get down and catch the pelters, and therefore it is safe to pelt — so the boys think.
Whether magistrates have ever studied, or should study, the matter from any other than a police-court point of view I should hesitate to affirm. But in the ordinary cases where lads fling pebbles at a steamboat or train, their parents are fined, with the option of the culprits going to prison, and as the parents no doubt always give the urchins their full money’s worth in retribution, justice is probably dealt out all round fairly enough. The boys, it generally appears, hit “an elderly passenger” with one of the stones which they throw; and there matters culminate, as the original act of stone-throwing, had the missiles struck no one, might have passed by as a surviving remnant of some old pagan ceremony.
Indeed from the very first, the youngsters have had bad examples before them; and if in such matters we are to go back to the original offenders, we must confess that Deucalion and his wife have much to answer for. Their descendants have been throwing stones ever since; and, whether in fun or in earnest, in the execution of criminal sentences or the performance of religious rites, men have never given over pelting each other. Whatever part of the world we go into, we find it is the same; for in the wilds of America the Red Indian shies flints at his spirit stones; all over Europe the devil is exorcised with stones; and in Asia, whether it is the Arab pelting the Evil One from the sacred precincts of the Holy City, or the Hindoo dropping pebbles into the valleys of enchantment, a similar tendency in race prevails.
As an instance of the innocent view taken of the practice by a distinguished Englishman, De Quincey, I would quote the incident of his meeting the king in Windsor Park. De Quincey was then a lad, and, walking with a young friend, was, he tells us, “theorizing and practically commenting on the art of chucking stones. Boys,” he continues, “have a peculiar contempt for female attempts in that way. For, besides that girls fling wide of the mark, with a certainty that might have won the applause of Galerius, there, is a peculiar sling and rotary motion of the arm in launching a stone, which no girl ever can attain. From ancient practice” (note this) “I was somewhat of a proficient in this art, and was discussing the philosophy of female failures, illustrating my doctrine with pebbles, as the case happened to demand, when — ” he met the king, and the narrative diverges from the subject.
Nor is stone-throwing without some dignity in its traditions, for it has happened probably to many of us ourselves, and it has certainly been a custom from time immemorial, to take augury more or less momentous from this act, and make oracles of our pebbles. Among the many cases of this species of divination on record, none is more notable than that of Rousseau’s, where he put the tremendous issues of his future state to the test of stone-throwing. “One day,” says he, “I was pondering over the condition of my soul and the chances of future salvation or the reverse, and all the while mechanically, as it were, throwing stones at the trunks of the trees I passed, and with all my customary dexterity, — or in other words never hitting one of them. All of a sudden the idea flashed into my mind that I would take an augury, and thus, if possible, relieve my mental anxiety. I said to myself, I will throw this stone at that tree opposite. If I hit it, I am to be saved; if I miss it, I am to be damned eternally!” And he threw the stone, and hit it plumb in the middle, — “ce qui véritablement n’était pas difficile; car j’avais eu soin de choisir un arbre fort gros et fort près.”
It is very possible, moreover, that the English boy throws stones from hereditary instinct; that he bombards the. passing locomotives even as in primeval forests the ancestral ape “shelled” with the cocoanuts of his native forests the passing herds of bison. It would therefore be rash, without research into the lore of stone-throwing, and a better knowledge of the Stone Age, to say that the urchin who takes a “cockshy” at a steamboat does so purely from criminal instinct; for it is repeatedly in evidence that he takes no aim with his missile at all, but simply launches it into space, and, generous and trustful as childhood always is, casts his pebbles upon the waters in hopes of pleasant though fortuitous results.
Again, as I have already said, there is often no malicious motive. To pelt the loquacious frog is, in my opinion, a cruel act, but the criminality lessens, at least to my thinking, if the same stone be thrown at a hippopotamus. Similarly, we might recognize a difference between flinging half a brick at an individual stranger and throwing it at a mass-meeting or at a nation, or at All the Russias; while, if a boy threw stones at the Channel Squadron, he would be simply absurd, and his criminality would cease altogether. Where, then, should the line be drawn? The boy would rather pelt an ironclad than a penny steamboat, for it is a larger and nobler object to aim at; but, though he could do “H.M.S. Devastation” no harm, the police could hardly be expected to overlook his conduct. Stone-throwing has therefore come to be considered wrong in itself; just as the other day a wretched old bear, found dancing for hire in the streets, was astonished to learn from the police magistrate that bears are not permitted to dance in England. What his hind legs were given him for the quadruped will now be puzzled to guess, and in the same way the boy, finding he must not throw them, will wonder what stones were made for.
A very small cause, indeed, may have immense effects; and this holds good with national character as well as with natural phenomena. A little stone set rolling from the top of the Andes might spread ruin far and wide through the valleys at their feet, and the accident of Esau being a good marksman has left the Arabs wanderers and desert folk to the present day. The English character has itself been formed by an aggregation of small causes working together, and it will perhaps be found that one of the most important of them was the abundance of stones that lie about the surface of the ground in England. In India the traveller may go a thousand miles in a straight line, and except where he crosses rivers, will not find anything on the ground which he can pick up and throw. The Bengali, therefore, cannot throw, and never could, for he has never had anything to practise with; and what is his character? Is he not notoriously gentle and soft-mannered? His dogs are still wild beasts, and his wild birds are tame. What can explain this better than the absence of stones? We in England have always had plenty of stones, and where the fists could not settle quarrels our rude ancestors had only to stoop to the ground for arms; and it is a mere platitude to say that the constant provision of arms makes a people ready to pick a quarrel and encourages independence in bearing. From the same cause our dogs obey our voices, for the next argument they know will be a stone; while, as for our wild birds, let the schoolboys tell us whether they understand the use of pebbles or not. In Greece the argument of the chermadion is still a favorite, for the savage dogs are still there that will recognize no other, unmindful of that disastrous episode in the history of Mycenæ, which all arose from Hercules’s young cousin throwing a paving stone at a baying hound. These same boys of ours, therefore, have this argument also in their favor, that they are obeying an hereditary instinct and developing the original plan of nature, when they throw stones.
I doubt if the police will attend to this. It is better, perhaps, they should not, or at any rate, that they should whip the boys first and discuss the instinct afterwards. A reformatory, except at Stoney Stratford, for such offenders would not, so to speak, be out of place, and a penitentiary at Stonehenge would be delightfully apposite, for the urchins could not throw it about, however much they might pine to do so. If exile be not thought too harsh for such delinquents, punishment might be pleasantly blended with consideration, if our stone-throwing youth were banished to Arabia Petræa. We would not go so far as to recommend stoning the urchins, for the ceremony which goes by that name was not the promiscuous casting of stones at a criminal, as is generally supposed. The guilty person, so the Talmud enacts, was taken to the top of an eminence of fifteen feet, and violently pushed over the edge. The fall generally broke his back, but if the executioners, on looking over, found their victim was not dead, they fetched one large stone and dropped it down from the same eminence upon the body. Such a punishment as this would not be suitable for the modern offence of pelting trains and steamboats. Nevertheless severity is called for; as, in spite of the hereditary and legendary precedent which the gamin of the period has for his pastimes, he cannot, even as the representative of the primeval ape, be permitted to indulge his enthusiasm at the sight of the triumphs of science in a manner that endangers the elderly passenger.
- A word of vexed derivation, but meaning in India (and Batavia, I believe) the precincts of a dwelling-house, — premises, in fact. — P. R.
- “ Sir,” said that emperor to a soldier who had missed the target in succession I know not how many times (suppose we say fifteen), “allow me to offer my congratulations on the truly admirable skill you have shown in keeping clear of the mark. Not to have hit once in so many trials, argues the most splendid talents for missing.”